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International Rugby League (IRL) is set to confirm that Pacific Island nations will remain as Tier 2 nations for the foreseeable future, despite Samoa reaching the Men’s Rugby League World Cup Final in this year’s tournament.
Newscorp are reporting that IRL will maintain the status quo until 2030 at the earliest, a move that will ensure that the likes of Brian To’o, Junior Paulo and Jarome Luai will be able to continue playing for New South Wales in Origin but representing Samoa at international level.
Under current rules, players can switch between Tier 1 nations – Australia, New Zealand and England – and Tier 2 nations, essentially everyone else, once per calendar year.
Origin is an internal Australian competition and eligibility rules are set by the Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC), not IRL, so the choice remains available to the ARLC should they choose to change it.
With international football set to be played exclusively at the end of the NRL season in the Southern Hemisphere, the decision to keep Pacific nations in Tier 2 essentially creates a loophole wherein New South Wales and Queensland can pick players who are eligible for Origin but who have no intention of playing for Australia on the proviso that they have not yet declared for their other nation.
This already existed this year, with Daniel Tupou and Felise Kaufusi opting for NSW and Queensland respectively midseason ahead of Tonga’s Test with New Zealand, but linking up with Mate Ma’a ahead of the World Cup. Siosifa Talakai did the same.
Luai, To’o, Paulo and Stephen Crichton of NSW – plus Josh Papali’i for Queensland – all played Origin and then for Samoa, while Api Koroisau turned out for both the Blues and Fiji.
Some have argued that the performances of the Pacific nations in the men’s tournaments should force them to be elevated to Tier 1, however IRL tiering has never been based on-field performances.
None of Samoa, Tonga or Fiji had Womens or Wheelchair teams able to qualify for the recent World Cup and domestic structures remain resolutely below Tier 1 standards.
IRL Chair Troy Grant told Newscorp that tiering would be discussed in the near future, but was unlikely to change.
“I don’t think that (Samoa and Tonga being upgraded) will change any time soon,” he said.
“We have a December board meeting where eligibility and tiering is on the agenda because of the interest and the lack of understanding.
“Tiering about nations is not just about on-field performance. It also takes into account domestic competitions, participation levels and governance arrangements.
“Whilst Samoa and Tonga’s on-field national teams are performing to a level of excellence, they have some work to do on the domestic front.
“It’s those performances that will hopefully drive the standards in their nations back at home and we’ll see where that takes us.
“The aspiration of Samoa and Tonga (to reach Tier 1) is terrific and we will do everything we can to support them because that’s our job, but we don’t want to set them up to fail either.
“You want to make a tier-one elevation based on a really strong framework so as countries their performances can be sustainable on and off the field.”
Many had hoped for a rule change that would allow anyone who has lived in their state prior to the age of 13 to play Origin regardless of international affiliation.
That would be music to the ears of Victor Radley, who essentially ruled himself out of Origin by playing for England – he has an English father, but was born and raised in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs – who are a Tier 1 nation.
Former England coach Wayne Bennett recently added his voice to those calling for a rule change, describing the current setup as ‘bullshit’ and cited the strong viewing figures on both sides of the world as proof that the international game was a major drawing card for the sport.
“Let’s stop the bullshit. It’s not that complicated,” said the former Queensland coach on the rules, which are set to be debated at upcoming ARLC meetings.
“Everyone needs to think about what is in the game’s best interests here. We have to acknowledge where international football is heading.
“We had more than 600,000 people who got up in the middle of the night to watch that game (the World Cup Final). That shows there is a market for it, and we are in the entertainment business.
“What I’m saying is the criteria to play for Queensland and NSW must not change, but what should change is that players should be available for selection for a whole lot of countries outside Australia.
“Victor Radley should be allowed to play for NSW and also play for England. But he will never play for Australia. He made that choice. But he still ticks all the boxes to play Origin because he grew up playing his football in NSW.
“What a lot of people seem to be struggling to understand is that these players like Junior Paulo and Jarome Luai and Brian To’o, they’ve all grown up in Sydney.
“So under the criteria as it is now they qualify for Origin. Then you have a bloke like Tom Burgess, who doesn’t tick the boxes, because Tom grew up in England. So he shouldn’t be playing Origin. So the criteria stays the same in that respect.”